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THE WORLD OF VARIABLE PRINTING

Apr 1, 1997 12:00 AM


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Imagine you're thinking of purchasing new wood flooring for your home, but you're not sure what kind of wood or flooring material will suit your lifestyle. Wear length, appearance and up-keep all are questions you need to find answers to before making an investment.

You find yourself procrastinating because you're not sure what to buy and you're short on time to research the subject properly. Then you see an offer that advertises the availability of consumer information covering more than 50 different products ranging from home electronics to vacation destinations to flooring. The offer claims to provide everything you need to know in order to make a wise purchasing decision, along with special offers from local retailers.

Because the only cost involved is the time it takes to call a toll-free number and answer a few questions, you pick up the phone and place an order. Two days later, a 48-page booklet arrives with your information enclosed.

What arrives is a personalized booklet that's anything but generic. It contains editorial and advertising specific to your lifestyle and needs. When you ordered, you indicated that you planned to install the flooring yourself. Therefore, editorial is included explaining procedures and materials for the "do-it-yourselfer."

Also included is advertising from the top six wood flooring vendors and special purchasing offers from retail vendors in your local neighborhood. Within 48 pages, you have all the information needed to purchase and install new wood flooring.

The above scenario, known as consumer-guided marketing, is an example of one-to-one communications. It's talking to a specific consumer in his or her own language, telling that particular person only what is of interest. This sort of targeted marketing cuts through the clutter of mass marketing and captures a customer's interest immediately, thereby increasing retention and delivering a higher return for the advertiser.

If the above scenario seems a long way off, it's not. The consumer-guided program outlined above is being used today in the Netherlands and is quickly expanding into the rest of Europe and North America.

Variable printing is the golden egg for short-run digital color printing. Coupled together, variable communications and digital color printing are the key enablers to true one-to-one communications. Like desktop publishing was the "buzz" of the graphic arts industry in the late 1980s, one-to-one communication and consumer-guided marketing is the "buzz" of the 1990s marketing world.

We know variable printing has value to the direct marketing world. We know it can be done. We know it's the future of printing. Now, how do we get there, and what tools and skill sets are necessary if you plan to offer one-to-one communication (printing) services?

Variable printing can be categorized into four levels: on-demand short-run color, personalization, selectable and full variable printing. Although there are other forms of variable printing using high-speed ink-jet units and duplicators, this article will focus on variable digital color printing using devices such as the Xeikon DCP-32 and the Indigo E-Print.

The first level of variable printing is on-demand short-run color. Enabled by the on-demand color printing technologies (such as Xeikon and Indigo), this is the most basic form of variable printing and the simplest product to offer. Simply, this is printing pre-defined (or designed) pages in short runs--typically in the range of 50 to 200 impressions.

Although elements on the page don't change from impression to impression, this is considered to be a form of variable printing because the content can be focused to a customer, organization or event. Typical applications include presentations, binder covers, proposals and focused marketing collateral.

The next level of variable printing is personalization. This is the most common type of variable printing--where a person's name or organization is imprinted on the collateral. Everyone in modern society has been exposed to this in the form of personalized phone cards or promotions that say "You may have just won" or a form letter with your name inserted.

Today, the majority of personalization is black-and-white, created with high-speed ink-jet presses or high-speed printers such as the Xerox Docutech. We do see, however, other color applications such as phone cards, starting to gain market acceptance.

The third level of variable printing is called selectable. At this level the page has defined parts that are static and other parts that are variable, keeping sections of the page common on all pieces and specializing others for each customer. Variable objects include text, images and graphics.

Although simple forms of this are produced with the black-and-white systems, the new digital color printing devices, which have variable printing front-ends, can exploit selectables the best. Customer criteria extracted from a database determines what will get imaged in the variable parts of the page. Typically products, descriptions and prices are swapped as an entire group, such as replacing the same piece of a puzzle impression-after-impression. Selectable imaging is primarily used for a variety of direct response applications.

The final level is full variable. Imagine starting with a blank page and letting the target customer fill it with text, graphics and images. Database driven, the entire page is created based on the customers' profile. Text, graphics, images and the layout can change based on customer preferences, demographics or psychographic information. This is only possible with digital printing technology, high-speed data systems and RIPs. Full variable printing is the purest form of one-to-one communication.

Printing variable content pages presents many new challenges for the output service provider. The technology is new, proper skills must be obtained, new workflows must be implemented, and new marketing and sales procedures must be put in place. To put it in perspective, imagine designing and implementing a custom workflow for every customer. This is the impact of each and every variable job.

One of the first questions you should answer before jumping into variable is what kind of variable printing services are you going to offer. Each evolution of variable requires different levels of effort, and the scale of the work increases as you get closer to full variable pages. In addition, each level of variable can require different front-end technologies or different presses, increasing your investment in equipment and personnel training.

Consider the base technology that drives all forms of variable--the on-demand color presses. Although you can look at these units as large laser printers, they're not. In fact, they're often temperamental color output devices fed by a PostScript pipeline.

Anything with a PostScript front-end can pose many challenges along the way to being printed. Files must be checked for completeness, and there must be correct color builds. In short, there are all the normal pitfalls of printing a color file to a PostScript device.

Operators must learn the color gamut the digital "presses" are capable of producing. Typically colors and images can look dull and lifeless if they are defined incorrectly for the target device.

In addition, even though you are not separating color from the document application, each file printed is four-color process and needs to be treated as such in prepress. These all are similarities between printing on a digital color press and producing film.

Customers, artists and operators need to be trained on the machines' capabilities--colors and fills need close attention. You will need a trained press operator, and be prepared to conduct regular maintenance to be productive.

Deciding on a variable front-end really depends on a couple of issues. What level of variable do you want (or need) to offer? What "press" have you purchased or are you thinking of purchasing?

All the on-demand color presses and their manufacturers offer some level of personalization or variable front-end systems. Indigo has the Truly Yours personalization option, Xeikon and IBM offer their own flavors of Variable Data Systems (VDS). Agfa has the Personalizer for the Chromapress, and Barco offers a complete variable printing system called PrintStreamer. Each vendor claims to be able to handle the full gamut of variable printing for short-run jobs.

When looking into a variable printing system, be sure to find out what the limitations are and purchase the system that will best meet your market needs. Each of the above systems has various limits. Pay particular attention to the number of variables a page can handle, the maximum variable coverage, storage capacity for images, preparation (RIP) time, hourly production volume and system error tracking and reporting.

Preparing for variable data printing requires a bulk of up-front work before the first page ever gets imaged. This includes working with the customer to define the job. Often the customer needs to be educated about what can be accomplished with your system. Designers have to work within certain parameters for best results. Most customers don't have experience with variable color printed communications and need to be educated about the possibilities and potential that this technology makes possible.

Once the base layout is defined, then all the resources need to be collected. Everything that's going to be printed has to be collected, including the database file from which the job will be run. At this point your organizational skills get tested. Each variable element (image, graphic or text) needs to be matched with the record on the data field from the customer's database. From this, naming conventions will be determined for the art elements that will be swapped during printing.

For example, let's say you're putting together a brochure for an insurance company. In each brochure, the company wants to show the customer the location of his or her local office in that area. To do this, the insurance company is supplying the local office address in the data record for each customer. This addresses will be extracted directly from the data file at the time of printing.

In order to image the right office picture, the zip code from the office address will be used to match the right image. Each image will need a name that will be easily identifiable by the configuration designer (the person that has to "glue" all these pieces together). In most cases, this is not difficult--just time consuming.

The amount of work each job requires depends on the customer need and the condition of the art supplied to you. Because each client has his or her own database structure, and in most cases the data needs to be manipulated to match the configuration requirements, it is useful to have an in-house database expert.

Creating and printing is only one-third of the job. Marketing sales and customer service are the other two thirds. The first lesson to be learned about marketing and selling variable printing is not to sell variable printing as variable printing. Customers are not buying ink (or toner) on paper. They are buying content, higher customer response rates and/or increased customer retention. If you try to sell this as ink on paper, you'll find your presses collecting dust.

Consider variable printing as a new business. Prepare yourself and your staff to enter the new world of one-to-one communications. Don't expect the market to come running to you. This is new technology and a new method of marketing.

Most customers know of one-to-one marketing and speculate on its advantages. However, few have statistics. Variable printing is in the early adopter stages of the product life cycle, and your sales and marketing plans should take this into consideration.

Today, variable printing technology is in its infancy. The digital presses and the variable data systems need to improve with respect to reliability, quality and speed before they can address the vast variety of applications being demanded by the marketplace. This is not to say, however, that what is available today does not have value--and it can be profitable. But remember, it can and will get better!

Advancements in the technologies will come from many sources. Xeikon, Indigo, IBM, Xerox, Agfa, Barco and Scitex all are improving different aspects of their current product offerings. Adobe is helping with technologies such as Acrobat 3.0 and the SUPRA high-speed RIP architecture. Acrobat and the PDF 3.0 format are helping to give the publishing industry a stable and reliable page definition format that can reduce preparation times. SUPRA promises to deliver a RIP architecture that will help keep RIPS as fast as the presses when every page being imaged is 100 percent different.

Although both the market and the technology are young, there are opportunities to offer one-to-one services and be profitable. The path to success is through doing your homework up-front with prospective clients or current clients. Determine the best path for your business.

Once you decide to jump in, evaluate your resources and implement the skill sets needed to be successful.